Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Doughboy Basics: What Was the Most Important Operation of the AEF and Why?

As you can see from the header on this page, the attack mounted during the last phase of the Meuse-Argonne operation that resulted in a decisive victory is considered the most important and successful battle the AEF fought in the First World War . The attack was the culmination of a painful learning process, which I guess is a polite way of saying that a lot of boys died beforehand while their generals were learning how to fight a modern war. Its importance lay in the fact that the lessons absorbed before it and put into practice on November 1, 1918, became part of the mindset of the American military establishment to this day. Those lessons, primarily about the application of firepower, mobility and logistics, were transmitted through time, in good part because, an astonishing number of future Army chiefs of staff and Marine Corps commandants played roles in the success and they made sure the lessons were absorbed by the American military in the interwar period.

Overview of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was by some measures the largest battle ever fought by American, and—as once pointed out by Prof. Robert Farrell—America's bloodiest battle ever.

Meause-Argonne, All Phases

When: Sept 26 - Nov 11, 1918

Where: North and Northwest of Verdun, Overlapping the 1916 French Battlefield

  • Break the Metz-Sedan-Mezieres railroad that supported all the German forces to the west.
  • Support General Foch's plan for a shoulder-to-shoulder advance by British-French-U.S. Armies
  • Flank the German Forces Deployed in Woevre Plain where the next AEF offensive was to be fought
AEF Units Participating: U.S. First Army commanded by General John J. Pershing until October 16th then by Lt. General Hunter Liggett. Three U.S. corps plus one French corps rotating 23 American divisions were involved.

Opposing Forces: Detachments of various sizes from 40 German divisions of the Army Groups of the Crown Prince and General Max Carl von Gallwitz participated in the battle with the largest contribution by the Fifth Army of Group Gallwitz, commanded by General Georg von der Marwitz.

U.S. Casualties:
Overall (47 days)
  • Killed: 26,000; daily average = 533/day
  • Wounded and Gassed: 90,000; daily average = 1,914/day

Killed, Wounded and Gassed By Phase (Note ratio of casualties to distance advanced)
  • Sep. 26 - Oct. 15: 60,000 (17 km advance)
  • Oct. 16 - Oct. 31: 40,000 (4 km advance)
  • Nov. 1 - Nov. 11: 20,000 (32 km advance)

The Worst Days for the AEF
During Oct. 8 - 18, when the First Army was simultaneously attacking the highly defensible heights of the central Argonne sector and forcing its first crossing to the east of the Meuse at the foot of another formation of heights that were also well-defended. The AEF in this period was in a similar position to the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg in 1862, times 2, on a vaster scale.  The rate of killed and wounded during this period was 2 - 3 times greater than the average for the full battle, Sep. 26 - Nov. 11. The daily average in this period was 1,200 killed and 3,800 wounded and gassed during this stage.

How Was the Third Phase of the Offensive Different

from What Had Preceded It?

There were four deficiencies of the First Army in the earlier phases of the battle 
  • The infantry was expected to continue its initial attack beyond the range of supporting artillery.
  • Gas had not been used effectively
  • Plans for counter-battery fire and rolling barrages were inadequate or lacked sufficient artillery pieces
  • Often inexperienced units were given missions beyond their capabilities

General Liggett's Leadership 

At the top of the chain of command for the planning and execution of the attack sat Hunter Liggett, who, upon replacing Pershing, promptly discontinued all major offensive operations to allow the army, corps and divisions time to reorganize and develop a new plan of attack featuring the most experienced divisions of the AEF. For the upcoming attack, Liggett chose objectives that, although relatively deep, were all within range of the supporting artillery. Suspicious that previous attacks had suffered due to excessive restrictions on the use of heavy firepower in direct support of the infantry advance, the new army commander authorized two important innovations. He directed the "complete use of artillery" for the upcoming attack, freeing dozens of heavy guns and howitzers to support the infantry. He also ordered the army's bomber aircraft to no longer focus only on hitting enemy rear areas but rather to attack "hostile infantry and artillery in close cooperation" with the assaulting infantry.  Surprisingly, tanks would not play a major role in the coming battle.  There simply were not enough left of the allotment to the AEF after the St. Mihiel Offensive and earlier phases of the Meuse-Argonne.

The Opening Day

Meuse-Argonne, Final Phase Only

This opening success stemmed from the most comprehensive firepower employment plan that the AEF had ever seen. Everything was in place well in advance of the jump-off time of 5:30 a.m. During the artillery preparation, which began promptly at 3:30 a.m., all the guns opened up on their German targets, namely, batteries and those infantry positions that were able to deliver fire upon American infantry at their starting positions. Eighty gas projectors also fired lethal chemicals on known machine-gun nests, observation posts and organized shell holes. Ten minutes before H-Hour, the standing barrage was put down in front of the German forward positions, as was a thick smoke screen to hide the American infantry moving up to the barrage. At 5:30 a..m. the barrage rolled forward, and the attacking infantry battalions began their advance, assisted by tanks. The first day's attack was an unequivocal success; in the central V Corps sector the 2d Division had broken through the enemy's main line of resistance, advanced nine kilometers and had suffered light casualties.

The Final Phase Featured a Huge Increase in Artillery Batteries

Eleven Days Later

By Armistice Day, the First Army had completed all of its objectives.  The rail junction at Sedan was under Allied guns and General Pershing had turned the occupation of the city over to the Fourth French Army.  The U.S. First Army was in process of shifting its axis of attack from due north to the east, to secure the Meuse Heights in anticipation for the next offensive.  The 11th hour came as American units were still fighting on the east side of the Meuse River.  There has been much criticism of Pershing and his commanders for continuing to attack when they knew the Armistice was soon to occur, but they were not sure that the cease-fire was to be permanent and needed to secure the best position should fighting resume.

In Pursuit of Retreating German Forces after the Early Breakthrough


To gauge the impact of this operation on the future of the American Military, a list of officers involved in the battle includes four future Army Chiefs of Staff, John Hines, Charles Summerall, Douglas MacArthur, and George Marshall; several Marine Corps Commandants, including John Lejeune and Wendell Neville; and a long list of future generals of the Second World War and Korea.
The big lesson of the November 1st offensive was stated by Summerall, who was V Corps commander during the fighting:

If we are to be economical with our men, we must be prodigal with guns and ammunition.


  1. Though I don't doubt that Liggett's planning was fantastic, by the time November 1st rolled around, we had already broken the key defensive line of Germans. That definitely made the breakthrough easier than when we still had to take obstacles like Côte Dame Marie. I guess what i am saying, is someone like Lengel, who gives all credit to Liggett, is going too far when a LOT of the heavy lifting had been done already.

  2. There was a fifth future Army Chief of Staff involved in the offensive (six if you count Pershing himself). Malin Craig also was involved in planning the offensive.

  3. Adequate splints and dressings along with trained stretcher bearers to apply them had to be in place before the offensive began. Col. Joel Goldthwait describes planning for the Meuse Argonne campaign as expecting 33,000 casualties per day to be moved behind the lines by 26 English and 47 French hospital trains. At the time of the Armistice 210,000 hospital beds were available for American troops and 192,000 of them were oocupied.

  4. The Argonne bar and liquor store stood two blocks from my grammar school. My mother explained the reason for its name when I was 5.